Debunking Smoothie Myths and Sharing My Perfect Smoothie Formula
Smoothies can be a great addition to your health, or they can derail your best efforts. The common way of thinking is, "Great, I'll pour a day's worth of fruit into this smoothie and get all of my vitamins!" or often I hear that people are adding every "superfood" imaginable - avocado, nuts, nut butter, chia seeds, flax seeds, multiple servings of fruits - until the smoothie is half a day's worth of energy (Breaking news: the term "superfood" is actually better described as a marketing term than a health term and by definition every single fruit and veggie - and many other types of foods - qualify as superfoods).
I personally love smoothies because they are so customizable (and delicious)! However, I definitely don't recommend dumping a day's worth of produce into one meal or snack and depending on your needs, your smoothie needs will vary. In fact, your needs can vary by the day or even the meal! Confusing? Don' t worry, I break it all down below.
"I Thought All Smoothies Are Healthy" or "Smoothies Are Full of Sugar" - So, Which Is It?
The truth is, the term "smoothies" is too general. Smoothies can be very nutritious, but they can also contain too much nutrition for one sitting - it all depends on how it's made! I like to consider the following when making a smoothie:
If it's a meal: Consider the components of a balanced plate - carbs, protein, fat and nonstarchy veggies (starchy veggies can of course be added - they fall into the carb section).
If it's a snack: Pair a carbohydrate source with fat or protein (or a bit of both) in order to maintain steady blood sugar levels and prevent a crash in energy. Of course, adding more veggies is always an option! You can also consider splitting a smoothie into 2 or more servings and simply using the same formula above, but consuming a smaller portion. Or, depending on your needs and schedule, your snacks may be the same as your meals and that's okay, too!
So, if you're drinking a smoothie as a meal, it shouldn't contain only fruit, or only veggies and water. It is important to provide enough nutrition to give your body the fuel that it needs and stabilize your blood sugar levels. However, portions are not unlimited and it can be easier to drink our calories than eat them. Curious about how to determine your needs and customize a smoothie for you? Keep reading!
Customize Depending On Your Needs
As you can see, nutrition is not a one size fits all approach, and building a smoothie (or any meal/snack) shouldn't be either! I've laid out a few considerations depending on different scenarios below, so you can see what your specific considerations may be (and then keep reading to build the smoothie of your customized dreams)!
Are you an athlete?
Consider when you're consuming the smoothie. Is it pre-workout? Post -workout? Just a random meal or snack? This can all affect what goes into it!
Pre-workout: Aim to consume mostly easy-to-digest carbs. This may mean blending 1-2 fruits with water and ice and calling it a day. You can also add a bit of honey to provide more carbohydrates, because you will be using those carbohydrates to fuel your game or workout. Keep fat and fiber low in this situation, because it can cause GI upset if consumed prior to exercise. While you can add some protein, I recommend only a small amount before a workout.
Post-workout: The focus should be on carbs and protein. This is your time to refuel - meaning you want to replenish your glycogen stores (the body's way of storing glucose) with carbohydrates and provide protein to repair muscle! You can also add more fiber and fat at this time, since you won't run the risk of cramping mid-game.
Random meal/snack: Athletes require more nutrition (read: more food) than most. Specifically, most athletes will require more carbohydrates and more protein, but in general, it is important to eat enough calories in total (which can be difficult to attain, depending on the athlete's needs and goals). While the relative amount of fat needed is often the same as the general population (or sometimes less, due to increased carbohydrate and protein needs), the absolute amount in grams may still be large due to the total amount of calories needed overall (i.e. taking 30% of 2000 calories is less than 30% of 3000 calories). Smoothies are a great way to pack in nutrition and consume more carbs, more protein, more fat and overall more energy (calories)! If you struggle to consume enough calories and carbohydrates, this is a great way to tolerate and enjoy these increased nutrient needs.
Are you an active individual?
Reference the same recommendations above for pre-workout and post-workout considerations. However, the average active individual likely does not require as many calories and as much of each macronutrient as most athletes. Clients often tell me that they would like to incorporate smoothies as a means of consuming more fruits and veggies, which is great! These smoothies may not need to be as "bulked up" with additional nutrient sources as the typical meal/snack for the athlete, but the principles of a balanced plate (or cup) for any meal or snack should still be considered. The difference is, you may not be looking to add so much to each smoothie. While individual needs will vary, this means not skimping on carbs, but choosing 1-2 carb sources (rather than 5). The section below will touch on this a bit more.
Do you have a health condition that makes it difficult to meet your nutrient needs?
I work with a ton of clients with digestive conditions and oftentimes, the issue is not consuming too much, but rather, many of my clients struggle to consume enough! Whether this is due to appetite or difficulty tolerating certain foods, smoothies provide a helpful solution for many people. For example, a person with inflammatory bowel disease may not be able to tolerate raw fruits and vegetables, but could potentially benefit from the anti-inflammatory effects of many of these foods. In this case, smoothies provide a way to incorporate more produce into this person's diet and increase their overall nutrient intake. In another example, a person with gastroparesis may have a poor appetite and early satiety, so drinking their nutrients can mean increased caloric intake and customizing the ingredients can help to increase tolerance.
As you can see, the person's needs can dictate how the smoothie can be made. Additionally, the same person may require a different smoothie "build" at different times. Nutrition is almost never black and white - it's important to learn how to embrace the gray area and remain fluid!
The Perfect Smoothie Formula (IMO)
I recommend the following formula as a general base, with options to customize your smoothie based on your individual needs/preferences:
Start with up to 2 servings of fruit (this means you can also use 1 serving - or 1 1/2 servings - it depends on your needs!)
Add a protein source
Add a fat source
Include unlimited nonstarchy veggies
Choose your liquid (milk, milk alternative, water, juice) depending on your needs
Common choices for smoothies and which macronutrients they contain are below:
Fruit (carbs - 1 serving is a piece of fruit the size of a baseball or ~1 C cut fruit)
Milk (carbs, protein, may contain fat depending on %)
Milk alternatives (will contain different amount of carbs depending on whether or not it is sweetened, most milk alternatives do not contain a significant amount of protein other than soy)
Beans (carbs, protein)
Greek/Skyr yogurt (carbs, protein, may contain fat depending on %)
Nut/seed butter (fat, protein)
Seeds, such as flax, chia (fat, carbs, protein)
Nonstarchy veggies (not a significant source of any macronutrient)
Pro tip: Frozen cauliflower adds a creamy texture. Spinach, baby kale, zucchini and frozen cauliflower are my favorite veggie add-ins because the taste is benign and they tend to blend well.
Need more carbs? Choose a flavored yogurt, or add honey, or add another fruit - or use beans as your protein so that you can add carbs effortlessly! Opting for milk or juice as your liquid will also add carbs (compared to using water or an unsweetened milk alternative).
Need more protein? Use a Greek/Skyr yogurt (rather than a traditional yogurt), use milk as your base, use silken tofu (for more protein and a super creamy smoothie), include beans, or of course, you can use a protein powder if you'd like.
Need more calories? Adding sources of fat (such as avocado or peanut butter) will help to add calories quickly. Opting for full fat dairy (or a higher percentage, such as 2% compared to 0%) can also be an easy way to add more calories.
Need fewer calories? Don't load up on the seeds. Many people don't realize that spoonfuls of flax seeds and chia seeds can add up quickly. Also, opting or water in place of milk or juice as your liquid will cut back on total energy.
So, I hope that settles that debate! Smoothies can be a great addition, but individualized nutrition needs means individualized smoothie needs, as well. Need examples of different types of smoothies? Check out some of my favorite smoothie recipes on the blog! Or, use these recipes for inspiration and create your own smoothie perfectly customized for you!